Appreciation of the Self #2: Calculating Mind and Generous Heart

I have written about the practice that Carolyn and I enjoy every morning of reading aloud together. We have recently come upon a book we find stimulating and inspirational: The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. Roz is a successful therapist and leadership coach in the Boston area, and Ben is a world renowned symphony conductor.

They have a refreshing and clarifying way of dealing with the ego/self relationship that I have been exploring in a number of essays. Rather than speak of ego with its sometimes confusing and always negative connotations, they use the term “calculating self.” They refer to the generative and compassionate part of ourselves as the “central self.”

The calculating self is a necessary part of the repertoire of being human. Frank Sulloway, a brain scientist at MIT, suggests that personality (or the calculating self) is a strategy we develop for “getting out of childhood alive.” Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, the theories of Eric Berne, called Transactional Analysis, offered vivid pictures of the challenging reality of being a little person in a big people’s world. Separation anxiety is not neurotic. It is a simple fact that our very survival depends on the adults in our lives, and we had better well conform our actions and beliefs to their perceived expectations in order, as Mr. Zander says, “to get out of childhood in one piece.” The problems arise, of course, when we carry our beliefs in a world of scarcity, competition, and downright hostility into adult life. Einstein once said that this is the most important question a person can ask: “is the world a friendly place or not?” If the answer one choses is “no, the calculating self assumes the executive position, and one’s actions are largely fear-based, self-protective and controlling. This might be why the Taoist idea of wu-wei, non-controlling behavior, ignites profound cognitive dissonance in some of my students. What would life be like if we didn’t keep it under control? What would it be like, indeed?

Ben Zander and I have both spent our lives in music (I in the minor leagues, he in the majors), and we both find that music offers a powerful analogy for the importance of relinquishing control. I have recently rewritten my post on this blog entitled Jazz as Love made Manifest in which I explore this idea. In this short post, I simply wish to celebrate the lovely possibilities of the central self when it is not stifled by fear. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius says “Turn your attention within–for the fountain of all that is good is within you, and it is always ready to pour forth.” In our more cynical moments, this might sound like naive idealism, but the Zanders tell the following story that renews my faith in humanity:

Inscribed on five of the six pillars of the Holocaust Memorial at Quincy Market in Boston are stories that speak of the cruelty and suffering of the camps. The sixth pillar presents a tale of a different sort, about a little girl named Ilse, a childhood friend of Guerda Weissman Kline, in Auschwitz. Guerda remembers that Ilse, who was about six years old at the time, found one morning a single raspberry somewhere in the camp. Ilse carried it all day long in a protected place in her pocket, and in the evening, her eyes shining with happiness, she presented it to her friend Guerda on a leaf. “Imagine a world,” writes Guerda, “in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend.”

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